Students receiving help also take part in making sure program a success at Cedartown Middle

Middle school is a tough time in a kid’s life. So much new knowledge is coming at them in a short amount of time before, and changes are happening to them as the grow physically, mentally and emotionally.

Those three years can make a huge difference in whether a child is on a positive track to become a high school graduate, or if they don’t end up collecting their diplomas after four final years or public education.

A major reason why some of those students never make it to the finish line and become high school graduates starts during these years, when students who are already struggling to survive at home find themselves having an even tougher time keeping up at school.

Last spring, a program started at Cedartown Middle School called The Dawg House sought to do something about helping students on the home front with the idea that they’ll do better in the classroom if their lives are more stable outside of school.

Now the program has nearly 50 participants involved, all receiving a degree of help in their daily lives, and Principal Shannon Hulsey said those involved are many of the same students volunteering to make sure the help they need continues.

Started during the previous school year, the program continues to grow and offers up a variety of services for students who need help, like getting a new outfit or having enough to eat when school is out over the weekends.

Help the students are receiving with love and thanks, according to Hulsey and the school’s media and technology specialist Laura Cox.

“They love to be able to come in here and work and help organize clothes,” Hulsey said. “We’ve always got someone in here volunteering.”

Many of those utilizing the program – now numbering 24 regular students and 48 overall on-and-off, with more expected – are the ones helping to make sure it continues to be a success. That also includes, when requested and still available, students who don’t have the ability to clean clothes at home with a washer and dryer available.

“Some will come on one week and some will come on others,” Cox said.

Cox said on average, six students are getting help in some form on a daily basis.

“And it’s growing every day,” Hulsey added.

The Dawg House also started off the year making sure student needs were being fulfilled.

Hulsey said during the school’s Open House in early August, Cox organized clothing donations that were taken up by parents and students, along with food and school supplies to help children enrolled as the year started.

“We also made contact with parents that we know the students who are legitimately in need to take food home with them over the weekends,” Hulsey said.

It was a night well appreciated by parents of students, especially those who didn’t want to hang around while moms looked through the clothing closet to make selections.

“They were sixth graders looking around at their new school, and their mom’s we just let them stay and shop, and then allowed them to meet with their child through the back door,” Cox said.

The program, which came about as conversations started last year for the high school’s Graduate Polk program launched earlier this year, is meant to help students who have problems at home that affecting their learning in the classroom. Already, Hulsey said there’s been an impact in how well students are doing with the help and she expects more as The Dawg House continues to grow.

But more can be done with the help of the community.

Individuals in the community can sign up on an app – available through the school -- that will text a list of people when The Dawg House program has a specific need for a student to be filled. People on the list can then go and make a donation of an individual item as needed.

“If you do it through the app, it is delivered straight to the school,” Hulsey explained.

She said that individuals can also sponsor specific participants in The Dawg House program if they so choose as well.

Or they can give in other ways, like helping with supplying the food pantry, or simply donating funds to Cedartown Middle earmarked for The Dawg House program.

However protecting the identity of those students using the program is a cornerstone of the program, and Hulsey said the idea is to provide children with help but also not revealing any information they might not want other students to know.

“We really try to be discrete with the students, and some of the students that use The Dawg House are the same ones who come in and volunteer,” Hulsey said. “We’re doing that so the students know if we’re good to you, you need to be good to other people…. That’s really what we’re trying to grow here.”

Making sure those students who need the help the most are being served is one of the biggest priorities for Hulsey and the program as a whole.

“Anyone that they know of who needs help, call the counselor and let them know,” Hulsey said. “We’re doing a survey with our students know to see what they need.”

Those who know of a child in need can contact the school at 770-749-8850, along with finding out more information about what the school needs specifically to ensure students are getting what they need.

Among the greatest of those requests at the moment is simple enough to fulfill: footwear.

“We really struggle with shoes at the middle schools,” Cox said. “The kids all want nice shoes.”

Cox and Hulsey additionally requested more clothing with sizes appropriate for young teens, and food for students to take home with them.

Those are distributed in book bags held on shelves outside of the school’s media center.

There are other ways people can help too outside of making donations. Hulsey also asked that those interested in acting as a mentor outside of CMS teacher and Polk County Commission chair Jennifer Hulsey’s Take Back Polk program, it is a critical area of need.

If for nothing else than to provide children with a positive role models in their life, and time requirements can be as simple as coming to sit down for lunch with a student.

“Sometimes it’s easy to write a check, but we’d love for people to give of their time and work with our kids,” Hulsey said.

The school’s media center acts as the hub for The Dawg House, where several areas have been converted for other uses.

For instance, those who need the services of a Willowbrooke at Tanner counselor, contracted via the Polk School District to provide counseling and mental health services to students, private areas in former conference rooms and offices not in use where sessions can be held away from others.

However for students to get the help they need, they first have to go through counselors, who then pass on information to Cox who then keeps track of needs as they come up.

Donations are also constantly coming in from students themselves as well. Hulsey said carts are setup in the hallway to provide students the chance to donate non-perishable goods that can later be given out in the book bags every morning school is in session.

The Dawg House is already seeing a lot of change happening within the school, especially with the media center serving as a hub for activities. Over the summer, Cox took up efforts to ensure that meeting spaces were made available for students who are connecting with counselors from Willowbrooke at Tanner.

Efforts included a reorganization of an area for storage of clothing donations, several offices and conference rooms transformed as meeting spaces, and Cox even giving up her own space to provide a comfortable and private area for students to utilize.

Cox and Hulsey said the program is positive for both the youth and the community as a whole.

“It is a positive thing for the kids,” Cox said.

Its part of an overall plan to increase a positive attitude within Cedartown Middle School, one that Hulsey said starts with the kids themselves.

She sees it in action now on a daily basis as her students come through the doors and head off to learn.

“We’ve just expanded our positive culture too,” Hulsey said. “Some of our kids will stand in the hallways every morning as students arrive, and they’re high-fiving and saying “good morning,” and “welcome.” We’re seeing that positive environment, and it’s growing.”